Are you tired of tipping? Fed up with topping up, usually by 15 to 20 per cent? Beset by anxiety at the end of the meal, because you didn’t like the service but don’t want to look like Marjorie Miser to the rest of the table?
David Jones may just have a restaurant for you. Mr. Jones is about to open what he believes is Canada’s first tip-free restaurant, Smoke ‘N Water, in Parksville, B.C., on the east coast of Vancouver Island. “I couldn’t believe no one else in Canada is doing this,” Mr. Jones said in interview. “What we have right now is a broken system.”
Whether you agree with that sentiment probably has a lot to do with whether you scurry between tables with a loaded tray for a living, answering to a scowl here and a waving hand there. Servers, who like the wad of cash in their pockets at the end of the night and the slightly mythical numbers they deliver to the taxman at the end of the year, don’t think the system is broken.
There is evidence that Mr. Jones is at the front end of a wedge: Some restaurants in the U.S. have banned tipping, most recently the Japanese restaurant Riki, in New York. Riki’s owner Riki Hashizume has said he’s following the practice of his home country, Japan, which pays servers a decent wage but frowns on tipping. (This is also the practice in places like Australia and parts of Europe. In North America, servers are often paid below minimum wage, with the understanding that they’ll make up the difference in gratuities.)
But here is a muddy confluence where labour policy, social practice and history meet, churn, and cause indigestion. To Mr. Jones, there is a gross unfairness when the “front of house” staff gets tips of 20 per cent and the “back of house” (bus boys, dishwashers, hostesses) make do with the small percentage that waitstaff kick to them at the end of a shift.
When Smoke ‘N Water opens at the beginning of June, there will be “no tipping” signs on the tables, and Mr. Jones intends to take 15 per cent of gross sales and recycle it back to all staff (he has already filled most of the 48 positions, with no complaints). Another 2 per cent will go toward extra medical insurance. Meal prices will rise to compensate.
Although they might not actually save much in the end, the ban should still make some diners happy. Tips account for about $4-billion in the Canadian economy, according to a report by University of Guelph academics Mike von Massow and Bruce McAdams. Thirty years ago, we tipped between 10 and 15 per cent; it’s now between 15 and 20. And the idea that a gratuity serves to “ensure promptness” is largely a myth. “Tips don’t seem to vary by service quality,” they say. We are social animals; we mainly tip to tell the rest of the herd we’re not cheapskates. (Ask anyone if they’ll give a second date to a bad tipper. Not likely.)
As the practice spreads to the many support staff who buttress our fragile selves – estheticians! Personal shoppers! Tour guides! – it’s the poor restaurant server who bears the brunt of consumer backlash. Increasingly, we want things faster, for cheaper – whether it’s a flight or a beer.
In fact, the job servers do is physically demanding, strenuous and underpaid. They hand over a small percentage of their tips to the invisible staff at the restaurant, and sometimes even to management. One bad table can wipe out a night’s work. Jenna, a server who works in a bar in suburban Toronto, told me about a table that occupied her for hours and tipped 57 cents on a $450 tab. That was an anomaly, obviously, but she says she’s noticed an increase in “verbal tippers – they say they love the service, then leave you a dollar.”
Jenna worked at a bar to put herself through university, as did Sylvia, who works at a restaurant in Ottawa. On a good weekend night, Sylvia says, she makes three times her hourly wage ($8.90 an hour) in tips. Neither of them can imagine serving if tips weren’t involved, although Jenna said she might consider it if the restaurant owners actually paid a living wage.
“Why should I tip them for doing their jobs?” people grumble. The answer is, because the tip is part of the wage, and labour should be fairly compensated. And if you don’t like it, there’s a nice place on Vancouver Island I know.
Eds note: The version corrects the spelling of Mike von Massow